This booklet, The Sovereign God and Man's Will, presents in printed form three lectures under the heading The Sovereign God and the Free Will of Man — Whose Will is Truly Sovereign? The Evangelism Committee of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan, sponsored these lectures in February of 2003 for the annual Winter Conference.
In choosing this topic, our church did not want to indicate that we have had a change of heart, or that we have any doubts about God's sovereignty. On the contrary, we continue to proclaim unequivocally the biblical truths of His sovereign will and counsel as set forth in the Word of God and our Reformed confessions (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordrecht), in opposition to all and any humanistic principles of free-willism.
Fact is, however, that this distinctive Reformed voice concerning the God who is sovereign and whose grace is particular is no longer heard in many Reformed churches. They have lost their Reformed distinctiveness. In one form or another, they have joined their mainstream Arminian brethren, adhering to the popular gospel that God wants to save everyone. Their teaching is that a person has the choice and ability to accept what is offered in the sacrifice of the Savior. Salvation depends on a person's will, which can be influenced by sufficient encouragement and urging. The Reformed truth that prior to regeneration by the Holy Spirit we are so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil is in essence denied.
This denial came to the foreground already in the fifth century with the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius, and in the seventeenth century with the Arminians (Remonstrants) against the Calvinists. Today this controversy has increased and intensified, for the free-will message is heard almost everywhere. Recently an outright attack on Calvinism came in a seemingly lucid book entitled What Love Is This? Its author, David Hunt, alleges that Calvinism misrepresents the love and character of God. However, in his own attempt to demonstrate what the Scriptures have to say about the love and character of God, Hunt pulls many texts out of their context, and thus ends up with an exegesis that is not in keeping with the whole of the Word of God. Not surprisingly, Hunt's bibliography includes critical references to writings by professors David Engelsma, Herman Hanko, and Herman Hoeksema.
Both in their proclamation and in their writing, the Protestant Reformed Churches in America have long taught the truth of God's sovereign will and the depravity of man's will. This is a fundamental truth, the importance of which can hardly be overemphasized. We made it, therefore, the focus of our 2003 Winter Conference, and now, with this booklet, make the fruit of that effort available in printed form.
We are indebted to Prof. Herman C. Hanko for his lecture on Predestination and the Will of Man, and his sermon on I Peter 2:7, 8 — Zion's Cornerstone: A Stone of Stumbling; to Prof. Robert D. Decker for his lecture on God's Grace and Man’s Will; and to Rev. Carl J. Haak for his lecture on The Law of God and Man 's Will.
In seeking to promote the cause of the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ and the glory of His holy Name, we pray that this booklet will greatly benefit the reader.
The Evangelism Committee of the
First Protestant Reformed Church of Holland
3641 104th Avenue
Zeeland, Michigan 49464
Predestination and the Will of Man
Prof. Herman C. Hanko
The Protestant Reformed Churches have not changed in their position concerning the sovereignty of God and the decree of predestination as they relate to the will of man. But the doctrine has fallen on hard times in our day.
A number of years ago, when Prof. Homer Hoeksema was still alive, he and I were sitting on a Friday afternoon in the faculty room of the seminary, as we frequently did, going over the affairs of the week, discussing the problems in the seminary and in general relaxing after a busy week's work. We were talking about how the church in our day has come to a point where even though it claims to be Reformed and Calvinistic, it in effect denies these fundamental doctrines of Scripture and the Reformed faith. Prof. Hoeksema made the remark: You know, if you stop to think about it, it is only infrequently in the history of the church that the church has consistently maintained the doctrines of sovereign grace. In those infrequent times when the church has maintained without compromise and with consistency the doctrines of sovereign grace, those times never lasted very long. Soon the church reverted to the age-old errors of Pelagianism and Arminianism. That struck me at the time. And while teaching Church History in our Protestant Reformed Seminary, the point was more and more forcibly driven home.
The question arises: Why is this so? Why are the great and grand truths of the sovereignty of God, of eternal predestination, and of particular and sovereign grace so infrequently maintained throughout the history of the church, and when they are, why are they maintained only for very short periods of time? I can come to only one conclusion: Their unpopularity is due to the fact that these doctrines are thoroughly and completely God-centered and God-glorifying. Men, even in the church, will not have it that way. They want glory for themselves. They do not want God alone to receive glory. Man insists on his own place, his own prerogatives, his own importance. He wants to retain some of the tattered remnants of a pride that burns white-hot in his heart and is shattered only by the blow of the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God. So he attacks those doctrines, attacks them vigorously in one way or another. He attacks them by denying them. He attacks them by trying to kill them with silence. It would be interesting to ask a thousand people in any Reformed church, "When is the last time you have heard a sermon that was devoted exclusively to the doctrine of sovereign election or, much less, to the doctrine of sovereign reprobation? How many have you heard over the past year or two?" Silence is an effective weapon, it seems, to destroy these doctrines.
These doctrines are also openly attacked by those who profess to be Reformed and Calvinistic but introduce doctrines into the confession of the church that are at odds with and ultimately destroy the doctrines of the sovereignty of God. I refer to such teachings as God's love for all men without distinction; Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross for the whole world, head for head; a desire on God's part, expressed in the preaching of the gospel, to save everyone who hears the gospel — better known as the well-meant gospel offer, which has become a sacred cow in countless circles. In the British Isles, for example, it has repeatedly come to my attention that one can teach any heresy under the face of the heavens and no one will turn a hair. But let someone deny the well-meant gospel offer and the wrath of the entire evangelical and Presbyterian world comes crashing down on his head, as if the only heresy that is of any account in today's world is the truth of sovereign and particular grace.
That is the situation in the church world. It is sad.
The Reformed may have won a mighty and powerful victory at the Synod of Dordt, destroying Arminianism and defeating its nefarious purposes. But the simple fact of the matter is, and no one can deny it — I say it with shame and sorrow — Arminius won!
It is, therefore, important that we address this subject: "Predestination and the Will of Man." It is here that the battle lines are drawn. Those who will not ascribe to God the sole sovereignty in His own universe are those who insist that all things turn on the will of man. That is precisely and totally contrary to the doctrine of sovereign predestination. It is to that that I call your attention in this pamphlet.
The Truth of Predestination
We must ask ourselves, first of all, what is meant by the doctrine of predestination? We must be brief, although it would be very easy to devote an entire lecture just to this subject.
The word "predestination" itself is not used very frequently in Scripture. When it is used, it is used to refer to God's sovereign purpose with regard to the elect only. Nevertheless, in the history of the church, going all the way back to Augustine, the bishop of Hippo who lived in the last part of the fourth century and the first part of the fifth century, predestination has generally been defined as including both election and reprobation. The term "double-predestination" has been the battle-cry of those who have maintained the sovereignty of God. And by "double predestination" is meant that God is sovereign in election and sovereign in reprobation.
What is election? Briefly, election is that eternal and unchangeable decree of God to choose unto Himself from before the foundations of the world a church in Christ as the object of His grace and love and to glorify that church in everlasting blessedness in heaven.
Election is, first of all, a decree of God's counsel that He determined before He began the work of creation and providence and the ultimate redemption of all things. It is a part, a decree, of His eternal plan and purpose. In the second place, election is the choice of a specific people. It is not a vague and indefinable determination on God's part to save some people. It is a definite and specific decree to save certain, specific people whom He knew before they were ever born or before they had ever done good or evil. In the third place, that decree of election is a choice of a people in Christ.I cannot emphasize that strongly enough. Christ and the elect in the decree and purpose of God are one. There are no elect apart from Christ. But there is no Christ apart from the elect. They go together. Christ is the elect, par excellence. Say "Jesus Christ" and you have said "election," an elect church, for they are one in the decree and they are destined to be one in everlasting glory and blessedness in heaven. In the fourth place, that decree of election is absolutely free and sovereign. It does not depend on what man does. It does not depend on what God is able to predict men will do. It is simply, without any modification whatsoever, God's decision to save a certain, definite number of people. And if you should look for the reason why God chose some and not others, the only reason that Scripture gives is God's own sovereign good pleasure. He decided to do it. It is His own determination. It is His will. Let it be driven home to our consciousness, because that is extraordinarily humbling. And that is what the doctrine of election ought to do to you and to me — it ought to humble us!
Finally, election, as the decree of God, is, according to our Reformed standards and particularly the Canons of Dordrecht, the fountain and cause of all salvation. All of the blessings of salvation, including faith, holiness, justification, and everlasting glory, and all the good works that the believers do in time, have their origin, their cause, and their efficacy in the decree of election. Election is the fountain from which flows all the salvation of the people of God, including all their good works. Ephesians 2:10 says: "We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." This text follows hard upon Ephesians 2:8, 9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast." In verse 10, Paul anticipates someone in his audience saying, "Yes, that's all right, Paul, but what about our good works?" Paul says, All right, you want to talk about good works? This is the explanation for our good works: We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which good works God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. That is, God determined those works before we were born, each good work for each one of us. God determined from before the foundations of the world that we would walk in them. Christ merited every last one of them on the cross. And each good work is worked within the hearts of the elect by the irresistible power of the Spirit. That includes also faith, the faith whereby the believer confesses the truth of the Scriptures and lays hold on Christ as the fullness of his salvation.
Election, I say, is the fountain and cause (I use the word "cause" deliberately) of all good works.
Reprobation, on the other hand, is that sovereign, eternal, and unchangeable decree of God according to which He determines to reveal the infinite justice of His own divine being, His supreme holiness, and His fury against sin by creating vessels of wrath that are everlastingly punished for their sins in hell.
The enemies of sovereign grace and those who are intent on salvaging out of the wreckage of man's fall some elements of human good and some reasons for man to boast, and who do that by attacking the truth that God alone is sovereign, always make predestination the object of their attack. If you are interested in some of the attacks that have been made over the years against the doctrine of predestination, I urge you to read the Conclusion to the Canons of Dordrecht. Our fathers sum up there, in a brief statement, all the caricatures of the doctrine of predestination, all the arguments that have been raised against it, all the vicious slanders that were brought during the time when the Arminian conflict was going on -- all directed against the doctrine of predestination. But when the doctrine of predestination is attacked, reprobation is without fail attacked first. Men hate reprobation. Men especially deny and attack reprobation because they consider it to be the Achilles' heel of the church; they are persuaded that the church will be reluctant at best, and frequently unwilling, to defend the sovereignty of God in reprobation. You will find, therefore, if you read the history of the church, that it is reprobation, first of all, that must suffer the fiercest attacks.
Reprobation and election are one decree of God. Our Canons make that clear in I, 6: "That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God's eternal decree (in the singular), according to which decree He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, (and now the rest of that decree) while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy." So, there is one decree that includes election and reprobation; that is, contrary to the insistence of some, it is impossible to believe in election without maintaining at the same time reprobation. The two are one decree. If you deny reprobation, you deny election. That God chooses some means, necessarily, that He damns others. The two belong together. They are two sides of the same coin.
Reprobation is sovereign. Reprobation does not mean that God determines to punish in hell those whom He foresees will not believe. That was and is the Arminian position. Strangely enough, insofar as Reformed churches still talk about reprobation today, that is what they make of it. They make reprobation conditional, dependent upon whether or not man accepts or rejects the gospel. If he rejects the gospel, he makes himself by his rejection a reprobate. That is contrary to Scripture and the Reformed confessions. God is sovereign in determining who are reprobate.
There is a relationship between reprobation and election that is important. The relationship between the reprobate and the elect is the same as the relationship between the stalk, chaff, and straw of a wheat field and the kernel of wheat itself. The relation between reprobate and elect is identical to the relationship of a cornstalk, a tassel, a root, the husks of the ear, and the cob, to the kernels of corn — the kernels of corn being the elect and all the rest the reprobate. What is true in God's eternal purpose is true also in creation. The reprobate are to the elect as the scaffolding is to the building — necessary for its erection, built for the purpose of erecting the building, but useless, torn down, and destroyed when the building is completed. In the purpose of God reprobation serves election.
The Sovereignty of God in Predestination
Now, in both election and reprobation God is sovereign, absolutely and without qualification, sovereign. The sovereignty of God is rooted, first of all, in the truth of creation and providence. God created all things, according to the Scriptures, in six normal days. He created all things by the word of His power. He spoke and the creatures came into existence by His efficacious and creative word. He said, "Elm tree," and it came into existence by the power of His creative word.
God speaks that same word to give the creatures He formed their continuing existence. That is God's providence. Providence means that God not only created all things, but He continues to uphold all things by the same word of His power. He not only says in the beginning of time "Elm tree," which gives existence to that tree, but He continues to say that word throughout all the history of the world. And when the elm tree is redeemed and brought to the glories of the new heavens and the new earth, God will continue to speak that word forever and ever, world without end. The existence of that elm tree depends absolutely on the continuous word of God which He speaks.
This is true of every creature. This is true of man, whom God created by the same word of His mouth. Man is upheld by the continuous word of God. Even Satan is upheld by the word of God continuously spoken. Reprobate angels, demons, are upheld by the word of God. If God speaks the word that continues to give to every creature its existence, one cannot deny sovereignty. How can one deny that God is sovereign over one's life when every breath he breathes is God causing one's lungs to expand and contract by the word of His power? God's sovereignty rests foursquare on the truth of creation and providence.
All things, therefore, that exist in heaven and on earth, in the world of angels and in this universe in which we live, are created and upheld by God. Over them all God is sovereign. He rules over them all. He upholds them every moment. If He would cease to speak the word that causes them to exist, they would simply cease to exist at that very moment.
But that same word of God that continuously upholds all creatures is the word of God by which God rules and governs all creatures, so that the whole counsel of God's will, which He has determined from all eternity, is carried out perfectly and without mistake. The creation is like a mighty ship, set afloat by God's creative power, guided infallibly according to His eternal plan, and brought at last to its eternal destination, the new heavens and the new earth.
It is a marvelous truth, in all its ramifications. One stands in awe on a clear winter night when he gazes into the heavens and knows with absolute conviction that every star has its place because it is set there by the hand of God and that the trillions of stars, the millions of solar systems and galaxies, are created by His almighty hand and move at His command. One is humbled that all is a part of God's eternal purpose.
This is not just abstract doctrine for the child of God. It is a truth that is the tower to which the believer flees and in which he finds a refuge in all the storms of life. When troubles mount, when sorrows increase, when the wicked grow strong and bold, when Satan goes about as a roaring lion, when everything seems to be going wrong in this topsy-turvy and upside-down world, and even when the chastening hand of God is on us, we flee to the rock of the absolute sovereignty of God. Nothing happens without His will! The devil cannot so much as move a finger without the will of God. All is subject to His rule.
There is a very beautiful illustration of that in the book of Job. You recall how Satan was powerless unless God Himself gave Satan the right and the power to do what Satan wanted. Satan appeared in heaven. He had a criticism of Job. God brought up the subject, not Satan. God asked him: "Hast thou seen my servant Job, good and upright?" "Oh, yes," Satan dismissed it with a wave of the hand. "Who wouldn't serve you, when you make him rich. You give him everything he wants." God said, "Take it away from him and see what happens." Then, when that did not work, Satan was even given the power by God to take away Job's health, so that his life was reduced to utter wretchedness. What was Job's response? "The Lord gave, the Lord bath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." And then we read: "And Job worshipped" (Job 1:20-22).
Luther comments somewhere on that whole fascinating and totally gripping story of Job and his three friends. He remarks that the three friends of Job had sinned so greatly in their conversations with Job that Job had to build an altar and make sacrifices for them so that their sins would be forgiven. Now Job had said some bad things, too. He had cursed the day of his birth. He had made a desperate effort to call God into account, to give justification to him for the terrible sufferings that he was called to endure. But, says Luther, even though in many ways the sins of Job were greater than the sins of the three friends, no sacrifices had to be made for Job. Why not? Because, said Luther, he believed in the sovereignty of God and the three friends did not. That was the difference. In all of Job's misery and anguish, and even in his criticism of God, he always recognized that what had befallen him had come from the hand of God.
God is sovereign over man. That means, first of all, that God is sovereign in the work of salvation. He chose His people from all eternity, not on the basis of works but on the basis of His own good pleasure. He gave His people to Christ. Christ assumed full responsibility for their salvation. He did whatever was required of Him and whatever needed to be done in order that His people might be saved. That involved the terrible, shameful, horrible death on the cross. Christ willingly went to the cross in order to accomplish the purpose of God in election. There on Calvary election was carried out — pictured in the election of the thief on one side of Christ and the reprobation of the thief on the other side of Christ. The cross accomplishes election and reprobation. It accomplishes election because by means of that one perfect atoning sacrifice the elect are given all the blessings of salvation in this life and in the life to come. It is also the accomplishment of reprobation Jesus Himself said, just prior to going to the cross, "Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out" (John 12:31). Or, if I may refer you to another text (I Pet. 2:4-8), Christ is the cornerstone of the church, on which the church is built, and in which all of the elect are living stones that compose the glorious structure of God's temple. But Jesus Christ is also the stumbling block to those who perish. Then Peter adds, significantly, "unto which also they were appointed." The cross accomplishes election and reprobation. It is as if that cross, planted on Calvary, is a cross that remains standing through the 6,000 years of the world's history. All of humanity, from Adam to the last one that will ever be born, is a mighty stream that flows across Calvary, and the cross becomes the dividing line between elect who, on the crest of the blood of the cross are swept up into the everlasting glory of heaven, and the reprobate who, on the other hand, are consigned to everlasting judgment and condemnation according to the will of God.
Election, therefore, is the fountain and cause of all good: of all our good works, of all the blessings of salvation, of all that the elect are now by the grace of God, and of all they will be someday in heaven into all eternity when they see Christ face to face. The elect do nothing with respect to their salvation. It is all given sovereignly, by grace alone. Man contributes nothing.
But does not the child of God himself do good works because he wills to do them? Paul explains this in Philippians 2:11, 12: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Why? Because "it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." Our will to do that which is right is God's gift.
God's Sovereignty and Free Will
God is sovereign also over sin. Here the baffle lines are finally drawn. Does man have a free will? The answer is, No! He does not have a free will.
One must understand that, when I talk about the free will of man, I am talking about the doctrine, current in our day, that fallen, sinful, depraved man retains that much good in him that he is able to make a choice for or against Christ. He is able to accept or reject the gospel with its offer of salvation in Christ. He retains a free will in his choice to do that which is right in God's sight or that which is wrong. That is the doctrine of free will. It is almost everywhere taught. Where can you go today and not find that doctrine maintained and defended?
It is said that that doctrine is absolutely essential to maintain man's responsibility. I do not know why men say this. We will take a closer look at that question.
Today's wretched, wishy-washy church world, with its doctrine of the free will of man, has not come up with anything new. That heresy is as old as the New Testament church. It was the heresy that was taught in the churches of Galatia when the apostle Paul fought against the Judaizers, who were destroying the faith of so many within these churches in Asia Minor, by teaching that man was capable of doing good works by keeping the works of the law, and that salvation depended upon his own ability to do this.
It was taught by the Pelagians, those evil Pelagians in the days of Augustine, who, contrary to the Scriptures and contrary to the clear teachings of Augustine, maintained that man has a free will. Augustine fought against that view and even wrote a book about it. Sad to say, the Roman Catholic Church, which has canonized Augustine and which claims today to have Augustine as one of its spiritual fathers, denies the very heart of the teachings of Augustine and has become itself Pelagian, teaching that we are saved on the basis of our good works, which we are able to do by a choice of our own free will and by which we merit with God. So imbedded in Roman Catholic theology is that vicious and God-mocking doctrine that in the ninth century the aged, godly monk Gotteschalk rotted in prison for denying it and defending the doctrines of the sovereign grace of God.
The Waldensians, that faithful group of saints who huddled in caves and holes of the Alps of Europe to escape the cruelties of Rome's Inquisition, who saw their infant children hurled over cliffs and their wives and husbands burned at the stake, confessed that man has no free will. They insisted that salvation is by grace alone.
It was the issue at the time of the Reformation. Luther wrote his famous book, The Bondage of the Will, against Erasmus, a humanist before whom all of Europe bowed in adoration, but who taught the freedom of the will. Luther would have none of
That was the battle in the Netherlands in the days of the Arminian controversy, when Arminius maintained the same heresy. Arminius said man had a free will. The Reformed said, Nonsense! Man is totally depraved.
I say again: Dordt was a great victory, but Arminius won. This is evident in many ways. If one teaches a well-meant gospel offer that expresses God's desire to save all men; if one teaches a universal atonement — that Christ died for all men; if one teaches that God loves all men; if one teaches a conditional salvation — that salvation in one sense or another depends upon conditions that we must fulfill; if one introduces man into the work of salvation (even a little) while leaving ninety-nine percent to God, one has chosen the accursed heresy of the free will of man. It is accursed. Why? It denies the sovereignty of God! Man is made sovereign. God waits for man to make his decision. God is dependent on man's choice for what He will do next. God longs for all to come to salvation. Poor, helpless God stands wringing His hands in despair as man chooses to reject the gospel and to crucify Christ afresh. God would have it different, but He cannot do anything about it.
If you will not permit man to have a free will, it is argued, he cannot be responsible for his sin. I do not know why this is said. It does not make sense to me to say that. But that is the argument.
It is free will or sovereignty — one or the other. You cannot have both. The doctrine of free will is an accursed blasphemy. It reduces God to an idol fashioned after man's imaginations, helpless to do what He wills and longs to do.
God's Sovereignty and Sin
The question arises: If God is sovereign, is He sovereign over sin? If His sovereignty is total, does not this include sin? The answer is emphatically, Yes. The Scriptures write this truth in large letters. Assyria, when it came storming against the northern kingdom to destroy it and then against Jerusalem to lay siege to it, is said to be an ax in God's hand whereby God cuts down an apostate people who have turned from Him to serve the idols of the heathen. Assyria — an ax in God's hand, that is all (Is. 10, especially vv. 5-19). Amos plaintively cries out: "Is there evil in the city and the Lord hath not done it?" (Amos 3:6). David, when fleeing from Absalom and enduring the mockery of Shimei, was confronted with bloodthirsty Abishai, who wanted to cut off Shimei's head. But David's response was, "No! God said to Shimei: Curse David" (II Sam. 16:5-10). David received the cursing and blasphemy of Shimei as coming from God.
And so it is on almost every page of Scripture.
God's will is supreme. God's will is sovereign in all the universe — in hell and in this world. Terrorists cannot do a thing apart from the will of God. Islam is carrying out the purposes of the Most High. All the evil that engulfs this country in its corruption is under the control of the Almighty!
Does that mean that man is not responsible for sin? Oh, no! Man is responsible. He goes to hell because of his sins. He is justly punished by God for his sins. He is accountable for them. Man is, by virtue of his creation, accountable. It is better to speak of accountability, for man must give an account of his sins before God; and accountability implies responsibility. By virtue of being rational and moral, man can do nothing else but "respond" to God. But because he is able to respond, that is, because he is responsible, he is also accountable. If God is sovereign even over evil, is man accountable for his sin? The answer of Scripture is, Yes! He goes to hell for his sin. He does not go to hell because he is reprobate. He goes to hell as the just judgment of God against sin. Why is he accountable? He is accountable because always, in everything he does, he sins willingly. It is man's will that makes him accountable for what he does.
How can one harmonize that with God's sovereignty? This question is repeatedly asked. The problem is frequently presented as if both God's sovereignty over sin and man's accountability exclude each other. Either God is sovereign or man is accountable. Both together are impossible. But Scripture speaks of both and thus both are true.
God's will so controls and directs all things, that it even touches upon man's will. But where God's will touches upon man's will, it touches it in such a way that man continues to do what he does willingly. God never takes the sinner by the scruff of the neck and says to him, "Pull the trigger of this gun and shoot your wife," with the result that the man says, squirming and desperately trying to get out of God's grasp, "I don't want to do it!" God never works that way. A man shoots his wife... because he wills it.
The whole question is really an abstract question. There is not a wicked man in the whole world who would ever deny, and who will dare to deny in the judgment day, that he did what he did because he wanted to do it. All the wicked in hell will say, "We're here...because we deserve it. We wanted to live our lives of sin. We chose the evil." That was all they were able to choose, for they are totally depraved. They could not choose the good; but this is due to the corruption of their nature. And the corruption of their nature, which makes it impossible for them to do good, is also their fault, for they sinned in Adam. They are responsible for Adam's sin, and their depravity is God's punishment for their sin in Adam. But behind their sin is God's sovereign work.
How can these things be? We cannot completely understand how these things are possible, but we ought not be troubled by them. I cannot understand anything about how God's sovereign will is executed in this creation. What is the relationship between God's sovereign will and the formation of a baby in the womb of its mother? How does God work that? How does God cause that to take place? How does God cause a blade of grass to grow? I do not know. And I do not know of a scientist in all the halls of the universities of the world that can explain that. What gives a creature its life? Can we understand anything about God's relationships to the creation? Can we understand anywhere how God works and why He works the way He does?
Can one understand how God moves the stars in the millions of the galaxies in the star-studded heavens? Can one understand the way of a serpent on a rock? Can one understand the simplest things that take place in this creation? Everything fills us with awe. One sees the trillions upon trillions of snowflakes — each one formed delicately by the fingers of God, each one different from every other, each one formed in the skies, falling according to a path ordained by the Most High, directed to a destination that God alone determines — and one marvels at the ways of God. Someone asks to understand and explain how God sovereignly works His purpose in evil so that His will is accomplished, though man remains accountable. We ought not be surprised that we cannot understand that. There are no works of God that we understand. But Scripture is clear. Christ was condemned and with wicked hands crucified and slain according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). But that evil deed for which the nation of Israel was rejected is our redemption. God sovereignly brought about the cross, His Son's cross, to save you and me. He used Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin and the mobs who mocked. He was sovereign at Calvary, in every aspect of that event. And through it all, He accomplished our salvation while the sin rests heavily on the heads of the perpetrators.
This is true for all that happens in this world, for "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). Reprobation serves election. The heinous sin of the cross of Christ is our salvation. All things are for your sakes. Ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's (I Cor. 3:21-23). And the sovereign God is glorified in all His works forever, world without end.
Zion's Cornerstone: A Stone of Stumbling
Prof. Herman C. Hanko
I Peter 2:7-8: "Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed."
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,
I chose to make a sermon this past week on this passage because of the conference that you are holding here in Holland the last two weeks and that will be concluded this week, the Lord willing. I chose this passage because it is a passage that stresses so strongly the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God, the truth that must be maintained in order to understand properly the place of the will of man in sovereign election and reprobation.
From a certain point of view, it is not a very nice text, because it deals almost entirely with the activity of the unbeliever and the sovereign decree of reprobation. In fact, as I was sitting here on the chair during offertory and pondering the sermon for this evening, I almost changed my mind and preached on a different text. It is not always so pleasant to preach on these passages.
Nevertheless, these passages have to be understood by the church. The very fact that they are included in Scripture in a number of places means that they are important for an understanding of the will of God and His sovereignty in all His works.
That does not mean there is no positive gospel in this passage. The passage starts out with the words, "Unto you therefore which believe he is precious." And that is indeed true. If some of that will fill your heart tonight — how precious this cornerstone is to you who believe — this sermon will not have been in vain.
The apostle Peter is talking about the preaching of the gospel in verses 1-3. He is talking about the need to receive the preaching of the gospel as the Word of Christ, which we must receive with eagerness and joy and with a deep sense of our need of it. He compares us to a baby at its mother's breast, who is almost frantic in its desire for milk. So we must be in our desire for the Word.
But he goes on to say that, at the very heart of that Word, and as the reason why we desire it so intensely, is Christ. Christ is the core, the heart, of the proclamation of the gospel. That is why Peter refers to Christ in verse 3 when he says, "If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious." The name Lord is a reference to Christ, because Peter goes on to say in verse 4, "To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious." Seeking Christ we too, as lively stones with Him, are built up a spiritual house.
So the apostle is talking about that one main event that takes place in history, which God works: the building of His house, or of His kingdom, whatever you prefer. The figure is primarily of a house, of a temple. God, throughout history, builds His house, the temple, in which He dwells. The cornerstone of that house is Jesus Christ. All the elect are living stones, who, united to Christ, compose that one glorious temple.
Now the point that he is making here is that all men are engaged in that work of building that house. At least they claim to be. But when they look for the cornerstone on which the building must rest, and they come across the one stone that alone can be the cornerstone, they reject it. That stone becomes to them a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. Then Peter adds those significant words: "Unto which also they were appointed." But you who are united to that cornerstone by a living faith and believe in Him, to you that cornerstone is precious. To that I want to call your attention.
We use as our theme:
Zion's Cornerstone: A Stone of Stumbling.
A Terrible Rejection
As I said, the figure is of God's work in building His temple throughout all of history by the gathering of the elect through the preaching of the gospel. That is the viewpoint of the text. That is the one reason for all of history. It is the one great work of God that excels all others. All of God's other works are subordinate to it, whether they be creation or providence, His works in the nations and among the children of men, His sovereign control of Satan and his hosts of demons, or His sovereign control of the fall of our first parents (Adam and Eve). The one great work of God is the building of the temple, which is His church and of which Christ is the cornerstone — a church that is built through the preaching of the gospel. Preaching is the only means God uses. There is none other because the preaching of the gospel is the preaching of Christ crucified (I Cor. 1:23).
Now the viewpoint of the text is that, in that work of building the temple of God, man has a role. I suppose, in a certain sense of the word, the role that he is required to assume dates back all the way to Paradise, where God gave to Adam and Eve in the state of righteousness the original creation mandate: Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth and have dominion over it. The original creation mandate was given to man in order that he might make this creation the kingdom of God. That is his work. It is the sole reason for his creation. The role that man must play rests, therefore, in the creation ordinance.
But man fell into sin and determined that he would, instead of establishing and building the kingdom of God here in the world, build the kingdom of Satan. He made an alliance with Satan by listening to Satan's temptation. He turned his back on God and he cast his lot with the powers of darkness, to build in this creation the kingdom of darkness.
Nevertheless, God builds His kingdom. He does so now through the gathering of a church, which He establishes as His own temple in which He dwells. That is a very common figure in Scripture, as you know. Already in the Old Testament the city of Jerusalem, the kingdom of Israel, and the temple were all pictures of the church. We sing, "Zion, founded on the mountains, God, thy maker, loves thee well; He has chosen thee, most precious, He delights in thee to dwell; God's own city, who can all thy glory tell?" That is the church.
In the new dispensation, when our Lord was here upon earth and Peter made in Caesarea-Philippi his great confession, the Lord said, "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, Peter, but My Father which is in heaven. That confession is the rock on which I will build my church and against which the gates of hell can never prevail" (Matt. 16:17, 18). What is that confession on which God builds His church? That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Paul takes over that same figure in Ephesians 2 in a marvelous passage, where he speaks of the church as a temple: Ye "are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple of the Lord" (Eph. 2:20, 21). It is a temple in which God takes up His dwelling. Christ is the cornerstone. That is the figure that Peter uses here.
God wills that that cornerstone be placed before all men. He wills this even though all men fell in Adam. God does not after the fall relinquish His claims upon men's service. The fact that they are totally depraved, unwilling to do the will of God and unable to do His will, makes no difference. They are still commanded to build the kingdom of God and to be engaged in that work of building the church. That is the figure of the text.
There is only one cornerstone for that building of the church: our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only cornerstone because of the fact that, since sin came into the world and men fell in Adam, the perfect sacrifice of Christ alone will suffice as the foundation for that temple. The kingdom is characterized by the perfect righteousness of God. And that righteousness of God, which is the one characteristic of the kingdom, is to be found not here in the world, but only in the blood of Jesus Christ, who made the perfect sacrifice for sin. Luther called this righteousness "an alien righteousness." He is the foundation of the kingdom; He is the cornerstone of the church. As Christ is preached, the church is built.
But now, says Peter — and this is the chief point that he is making in this passage — men do not want to build on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. He quotes Psalm 118:22: "The stone rejected and despised is now the cornerstone; How wondrous are the ways of God, unfathomed and unknown," as our Psalter versification has it.
That these professed builders reject the cornerstone means that those who claim to be engaged in the building of the kingdom of God and the gathering of the church were, first of all and primarily, the Jews — throughout the history of the nation of Israel and especially in the time of Jesus. You know how pious the Pharisees could be and how intent on orthodoxy and purity of religion these miserable hypocrites were. They claimed to be building the kingdom and church of God. Their claim seemed to be justified, because they were certainly zealous, from an outward point of view, for the things of God. But when they came to the cornerstone, the only cornerstone that could serve as a foundation of that building, they, according to Psalm 118 and the words of Peter who quotes that Psalm, rejected it. They looked at the cornerstone, they examined it closely, they appraised its value also in relationship to the kingdom that they claimed to be building, they looked at it from the point of view of how it would serve the church that they were supposedly busy erecting, and their conclusion was: The cornerstone is no good; it is useless to us. And they threw it aside.
Jesus quotes Psalm 118 toward the very end of His ministry in connection with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard who stoned the servants that were sent unto them and who finally took God's Son and killed Him, so that the vineyard might be theirs. "Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner" (Matt. 21:42). The one cornerstone on which alone the kingdom of God could be built was rejected.
That continues throughout all history, not limited, by any means, to the Jewish nation. The cornerstone is still proclaimed in the gospel. That is why also the church of our day, which claims to be establishing the kingdom of God and building God's temple, rejects the cornerstone as of no use at all. This is why, if you listen to most preaching, there are innumerable sermons that are preached in which Christ is never mentioned, the cross is never held high before the people of God as the only righteousness of the kingdom, and the blood of atonement is never so much as proclaimed as the only foundation of the church's salvation.
Men claim to be building the kingdom. They do not want the cornerstone. They refuse it. Sometimes they refuse it in subtle ways. They refuse it by introducing into the preaching doctrines that minimize and ultimately destroy the work of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
Why do they do that? Because they build a kingdom of men. They build a building that can be for the praise of men. They gather a church, they claim, but by men's means. Because the kingdom they are building is intended to show the praises of men, they reject the cornerstone. Perhaps they wish men to marvel at the wonders of modern weaponry and the military power of the United States. Perhaps they cause even serious people of God to characterize the wonders of medicine as miracles — the miracles of modern medical procedures and modern surgical triumphs, as if these build the kingdom. Sometimes God shows what fools they are — as when, after a successful orbit of Columbia, the craft explodes and burns in its descent back to earth. God forcibly reminds men that matters are not in their hands and that their triumphs are so many paper houses. But men persist.
They are confronted with the cornerstone, the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom He established, and in one way or another they reject Him. They show their rejection by preaching what is insipid and Christless, in which the blood of atonement is denied and the works of men are extolled. The Word of God is thus defamed. The cornerstone is rejected!
The apostle says in the text that the rejection of the cornerstone results in the fact that this stone becomes "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence." That stone is always in the way. They cannot ignore it. They throw it aside, but there it is again. Why is that? That is because of the fact that God puts that stone in the way.
In the Judgment Day, when all nations and all men stand before the great white throne and all men are judged according to the deeds that they have done in the flesh, there is going to be only one question that will be put to men. On the basis of their answer to that question they will be judged. That one question is this: "What did you do with Christ?" There is no other question of any importance. Of course, they will be judged according to all the deeds that they did in the flesh. But all the deeds that they did in the flesh and all the actions that will form the basis of judgment are deeds that they performed, and actions of which they were the authors, because of their answer to the question: "What did you do with Christ?" That question confronts men every moment, no matter how hard they try to get away from it, no matter how repeatedly they reject Christ and throw aside in disgust the cornerstone. It is always there, confronting them. And it is there because there is always in the world a faithful church that proclaims Christ and the cross of Jesus Christ as God's work, by means of which He establishes His kingdom — not by might, not by power, not the deeds of men or the mighty accomplishments of the nations, but simply by the blood of the Lamb of God. That is how the kingdom is established. And Christ is the only basis for it. The power of that blood of atonement is the one power of the building of the church. There it is. It gets in their way. It is always something with which one must reckon. It can never be pushed aside.
So that stone becomes a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.
Now those two expressions essentially mean the same thing. It is a stone that is in their pathway as they pursue their goals. That rock of offense is the word from which we get our English word "scandal" — a rock of scandal — they are scandalized by the cornerstone. And the more they are confronted with it, the more scandalized they become — the more offensive that stone appears to them. They stumble over it. What does that mean? That means this: that when they reject the cornerstone as the only possible stone on the basis of which the kingdom can be erected and the house of God built and they refuse to use it, it becomes a means to cause them to sin more. They stumble and they fall into greater sin.
The sin of rejecting the cornerstone manifests itself in greater and worse sins. You all know that is true. There are denominations that once stood strongly for the cause of the Reformed faith. But they were bent on ascribing to man in some measure the work of salvation, to find in man some good, to ascribe to man some ability to do that which is pleasing to God. It is, it would seem, a minor error. It was done while the church continued to profess its deep commitment to the truths of sovereign grace. But, nevertheless, that stone was rejected and it became a stone of stumbling. Before long, that church began to teach that the cross of Christ was for all men and that Christ shed His blood for every man, so that every man might have the opportunity to be saved. They stumbled and fell into greater error. And soon, because this cornerstone, who is Jesus Christ, is also the cornerstone of the kingdom of God in His work of creation, and because they had rejected it, they began to deny the doctrine of creation and say that the world came into existence by its own power. Then, they stumbled again and began to say that that which characterizes the world in all her ungodliness and filth is legitimate in the church of Jesus Christ. We are building a house in which there is room for all men. And even though men defile the ordinances of God with respect to marriage and divorce, even though men defile the ordinances of God in pursuing wickedness as they lust after the pleasures of the world and the fleshpots of Egypt, there is room in the house for them. We are building a house big enough for all men. They stumbled and they fell.
Now it is come to such a point that the sin that characterizes in the world the final degradation of man's moral corruption — the sin of homosexuality — is openly accepted in the church, and practicing homosexuals are even permitted to hold office, under Christ, in the church. The house must be big enough even to hold those who trample God's law underfoot. They stumble and they fall.
That is always the way it is. There is a warning in this for you and me. We may not play games with the church, beloved. We may not take the doctrines of the church lightly and deny them even by silence, without paying a terrible price. If we reject in word or deed the cornerstone, that stone becomes a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. The cross is offensive. The blood of atonement is a scandal. And men stumble and fall even while they claim to be building the house.
The cornerstone is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to those who are disobedient. That is, they disobey the command to repent of their sin and believe in Christ. In this way they reject the cornerstone.
A Sovereign Cause
But Peter adds, "To this they were appointed."
That is a clear statement of the doctrine of reprobation. In its clarity it stands on a par with Romans 9:11-18 and John 12:37-41. God has appointed them to stumble and fall. In fact, as is evidently the intent of Peter in this passage, not only is their stumbling and falling appointed by God, but their rejection of the cornerstone is also appointed by God. That is, in His eternal counsel, as God determined all that would take place in the history of this world, determined it with sovereign freedom, determined it as the living God, the Creator of all things, He determined that the stone upon which He would build His kingdom would be rejected and that that stone would in turn, by virtue of its being rejected, be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, until finally those who stumbled over it stumbled and fell into hell itself. This too is part of His own sovereign, efficacious, eternal determination. That is the doctrine of reprobation.
What does reprobation mean?
In the first place, it means that God is sovereign over sin. The fall did not come about unexpectedly, but according to the decree and purpose of God. When God saw Adam and Eve being tempted by Satan, God was not, so to speak, standing on the sidelines hoping earnestly that Adam and Eve would be able to resist; and when indeed they fell, He wrung His hands in disappointment, and was forced to fall back on another plan to build His kingdom than that which He had originally intended. God is God. He is sovereign. He is sovereign over sin. Even the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord. As rivers of water, He turneth it whithersoever He will (Prov. 21:1). Assyria, which laid the northern kingdom waste, is an axe that God wields with a sovereign hand to chop down the vine of Jacob and the vineyard of Israel. God is sovereign. When Christ was crucified, He was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, while at the same time it was with wicked hands that He was crucified and slain (Acts 2:23).
In the second place, when God determines sin and executes His counsel, He does so in such a way that man is himself accountable for his own sin. It is man's unbelief, as the text makes clear, that causes them to reject the cornerstone. God does not make man an unbeliever. God did not force Adam against his own will to sin. Adam sinned willingly. All men, fallen in Adam, sin willingly and are accountable for their sin before God.
In the third place, the relationship between God's decree of reprobation and sin must be defined this way (I ask you to listen carefully that there may be no mistake about it): the decree of reprobation is not the cause of man's unbelief and man's rejection of Christ. Our fathers in the Canons of Dordt were very careful about that. In fact, they repudiate, as an error, that which makes God the author of sin — something which we detest with our whole soul. In the conclusion to the Canons the fathers say that election is the fountain and cause of faith; but reprobation is not that way. It is not the fountain and cause of sin, God is not to blame for man's sin. And when the sin of man is punished in everlasting judgment in hell, man receives what he deserves.
Nevertheless, you must not say either that the unbelief of man is the cause of reprobation. That is what the Arminians taught in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was one reason why the Canons were written. The Arminians say, We believe in reprobation, of course! But we believe that God is able to see into the future and with absolute certainty predict those who will not believe. On that basis God reprobates. Our fathers said, No! That detracts from the sovereignty of God. God is not dependent upon man in any respect. His counsel stands. He does all His good pleasure. A reprobation that is on the grounds of man's unbelief is a conditional reprobation, not taught in Scripture and abhorrent to the one who loves the truth of the sovereignty of God. So reprobation is not the cause of unbelief, nor is unbelief the cause of reprobation. But, and this is how our father's formulated it in a careful way, God accomplishes the sovereign decree of reprobation according to the counsel of His will in the way of man's unbelief. That is the key phrase: in the way of. Beyond that, our fathers would not go. Beyond that, none of us or any Reformed theologian may go. God is sovereign in reprobation and sovereign over sin. And He realizes the decree of reprobation in the way of man's sin, so that man remains accountable for his sin.
That is what Peter has in mind here.
You must maintain that doctrine, beloved. That is not easy. As I said at the conference, evil men are quick to pounce on this doctrine. They consider it to be the Achilles' heel of the Reformed faith. They scoff at the doctrine. They quickly come with all kinds of evil charges against it and against the God who is sovereign: He is a monster, He simply throws babies into hell willy-nilly, His choices are arbitrary, He makes man a stock and a block. You can read all those terrible objections in the conclusion to the Canons. Our fathers were acquainted with those objections, and they rejected them all.
God is sovereign. That is all there is to it. The believer wants a sovereign God. He does not want a God who is not sovereign over all His works.
Many years ago, at the graduation of a class from the seminary, Rev. Hoeksema made a speech. He concluded his speech by saying something to this effect: If it ever becomes necessary for me, he said, to make a choice between the absolute sovereignty of God and the accountability of man (mind you, he said, I don't have to make that choice, and I never will, because God's sovereignty does not deny man's accountability and man's accountability does not deny God's sovereignty, they fit like a hand in a glove), but if I should be forced to make the choice, then give me the sovereignty of God. The believer confesses God is God in all His works.
A Blessed Truth
Nevertheless, to those who believe, that cornerstone is precious. You could translate that first clause in verse 7 in this way: "Valuable to the ones believing is the cornerstone." Valuable! Something precious is something unspeakably valuable. That is emphasized in the text, first of all, when the text says, in quoting Psalm 118, "The stone which the builders despised is become the head of the corner." The stone rejected and despised is now the cornerstone. How wondrous are the ways of God unfathomed and unknown. Why are those ways of God so wondrous? Because, you see, the very rejection of the cornerstone was the means that God used to establish the cornerstone as the foundation of the church. That is the cross. That was where the cornerstone was rejected, when the whole nation of Israel stood before Pontius Pilate and shouted themselves hoarse: "Caesar is our king. We have no king but Caesar. Away with Him, crucify Him!" Their Messiah. The hope of the nation of Israel for two thousand years. The hope of every believer since Abel brought the sacrifice of a lamb. They saw Him in front of them and they said, "Away with Him. We will have Caesar. We are building a different kingdom." And when Pilate, in his own wicked way, put above the cross, "This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews," the One who establishes the kingdom, although Pilate did not believe a thing of it, the Jews said, "Change it! He is not our king!" That very rejection of the cornerstone was the means that God used to establish Christ as the cornerstone.
That is a wondrous work of God. Through the cross, through the rejection of Israel, Christ becomes the foundation for the kingdom that will be perfectly realized in heaven. That means that reprobation serves election. In the rejection of the cornerstone the wicked can do the gospel no harm. They can do Christ no harm. They can do the church no harm. When at last, in their fury and rage against that stone over which they incessantly stumble, they are driven to destroy the church and silence the witness of the church, they only serve the purpose of God and do no harm to Him or to His cause. That is Psalm 2 . Who can read Psalm 2 without something of a shudder going down his spine:
"Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against His anointed. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh." That gives me cold chills. He laughs! He laughs because all their efforts are futile and in vain? Oh, of course. But God laughs because all their hatred, all their efforts to destroy Him and His kingdom and the kingdom of His Son, God simply uses in His own sovereignty to establish His own kingdom and to build the house of His church. Of Cyrus, king of Persia, picture of Antichrist, God says: I know thee; I know thee by name. Why? Because thou art My servant to bring Israel back to Canaan, that the promise may be realized and fulfilled, because I am God and I do all my good pleasure (Is. 45:1-7).
And so the house is built. The house is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And Jesus Christ is the cornerstone. The scaffolding for building are the reprobate. And when the house is finally built and there is no need for the scaffolding anymore, the scaffolding is burned in a fire that burns forever while the church inherits the kingdom.
No wonder that cornerstone is valuable. That almost sounds like an understatement, does it not? Valuable to those who believe is the cornerstone. Do not forget, that faith by which they believe is sovereignly worked. That also is our Canons: "that some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God's eternal decree" (Canons I, 6). In III/IV, 14 the fathers are insistent that we not say about faith that God gives the gift of faith and then leaves it to man to exercise faith and ultimately believe in Christ, but He who works all things according to the counsel of His will and works in man both to will and to do of His good pleasure, not only works in them the gift of faith but works in them the act of believing also. That is our Canons. Beautiful! Moving! Powerful! Scriptural!
By faith the cornerstone is precious. Why? Because by God's sovereign purpose and eternal determination God has so worked faith in our hearts that we are built as living stones upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Ye, Paul says, "are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom the whole building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord," in which temple God dwells in everlasting, covenant fellowship. He has sovereignly, graciously, wondrously chosen you and me and our children to be living stones in that temple.
When we see that cornerstone, therefore, when we see it as it is preached in the gospel and revealed to us in the sacred Scriptures, then we consider that cornerstone to be the fullness of all our salvation. He is the Rock on which we rest. He is now in glory. Sometimes I cannot wait till the day comes to be with Him, for He is our Savior and our Redeemer, the Head of the church, where all things shall be forever to the glory of God.
God's Grace and Man's Will
Professor Robert D. Decker
We begin by calling the readers' attention to two passages of Scripture. The first is Deuteronomy 30:19, "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." The second is Romans 9:16 and 18: "So then it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.... Therefore hath he mercy on whom he (God) will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth." Are these two passages contradictory? After all, Deuteronomy says, "choose life," but Romans 9 plainly states, "it is not of him that willeth, but of God who shows mercy on whom he wills." To choose is an act of the will. Again, does Romans contradict Deuteronomy?
Let us understand, this is not merely an interesting question. This is not a question merely to be discussed or perhaps debated on an intellectual level. Certainly this is not a question on which there may be tolerated differing opinions in the church. This is a question that concerns the very fundamental issues, or even the most vital issue, of the truth of the sacred Scriptures as summed in the Reformed confessions and as taught by God's grace in the Protestant Reformed Churches! It is a question that lies at the heart of the Reformed truth of Scripture.
Think of what is involved here. Either man's will is free, so that he is able to choose to allow God to save him by the atonement of Jesus Christ, or man's will is in bondage to sin, i.e., totally depraved, thus rendering him unable to cooperate or contribute one iota to his own salvation. To put it another way, does God respond to man's will, or does man respond to God's sovereign will? Or yet another way, is God an acting, sovereign, almighty God, or is God a reacting God, powerless to save unless man is willing to allow God to save him? Is God sovereign, or is He dependent upon man's willingness to be saved?
Really, when all is said and done, the question becomes: Who is God — the God of the Scriptures, or man?
Testimony of the Reformed Confessions
What do our Reformed confessions say in answer to this question? We begin with the oldest of the Three Forms of Unity, the Belgic Confession (1561). Article 13 (Of Divine Providence) of this marvelous statement of the Reformed faith teaches that God, after He created all things, did not give them up to fortune or chance, but rules and governs them according to "his holy will" (emphasis mine). Nothing happens in this world without God's appointment. God, the article emphasizes, is not the author of sin! God executes His work in a most excellent and just manner, even when devils and wicked men act unjustly. While we cannot understand how this can be, we do not curiously inquire into it, but with humility and reverence adore God's righteous judgments. This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since by it we are taught that nothing can befall us by chance. God so mercifully watches over us that the devils and wicked men cannot hurt us.
Article 14 teaches three fundamental truths:
1. God created man good, sinless, and in His image and
2. Man willfully transgressed God's commandment and
subjected himself to sin, death, and the curse.
3. As a result, man is totally depraved. He is corrupt in all his ways and has lost all his excellent gifts; his whole nature is corrupted. The few remains of God's gifts left to man are sufficient to leave man without excuse. Therefore we reject the error of the free will of man since man is but a slave to sin.
Articles 2 1-24 teach the only way out of this sin, depravity, death, and curse. Article 21 teaches that Christ satisfied the justice of God for the elect by offering Himself on the tree of the cross. Article 22 emphasizes that the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Christ with all His merits. In Jesus Christ we have complete salvation. Article 23 teaches that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us by means of the gift of faith. And Article 24 stresses the truth that good works do not merit our salvation, but are strictly the fruit of faith. This is a truth that needs emphasis in our day in the light of the fact that some in Reformed/Presbyterian churches are teaching that we are saved by faith and works!
Turning at this point to the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), we confess with Lord's Day 1 that our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own but belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. To enjoy this only comfort we need to know three truths: How great our sins and miseries are. How we may be delivered from our sins and misery. How we may express our gratitude to God for that deliverance.
From Lord's Day 2 we learn that the source of the knowledge of our sin and misery is the law of God: love God and the neighbor. Question 5 of this Lord's Day asks a very important question; "Canst thou keep all these things perfectly (emphasis mine)? The answer to that question is, "In no wise, for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor." Note well! It is not a question of whether we do keep the law, but it is a question of whether we can keep the law. In other words, it is a question of whether we have the ability to keep the law!
Lord's Day 3 teaches three fundamental truths:
1. God did not create us so wicked and perverse, but good
and after His own image in true righteousness and holiness.
2. The depravity of our nature came from the fall and disobedience of our first parents, hence our nature is become so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.
3. The conclusion is this: Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all wickedness. Is it really that bad? The answer is, "Indeed we are, except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God."
Lord's Days 4, 5, and 6 teach that God is just and will not allow such disobedience to go unpunished. No mere creature can be found anywhere who is able to make satisfaction for our sins. We need a Mediator who is fully God and a real, righteous man! And that God/Man is Jesus Christ, God's only begotten Son in the likeness of our sinful flesh.
Lord's Day 7 teaches that God saves, not all men, but only those engrafted into Christ by a true and living faith. This faith (a certain knowledge and an assured confidence) is worked in our hearts by God, the Holy Spirit. Faith is worked in us merely of grace and only for the sake of Christ's merits. Obviously the Catechism teaches that salvation from our sins and sinful natures and death is from beginning to end solely the work of God!
Lord's Days 9 and 10 reinforce this precious truth. The Creator God is my God and Father for Christ's sake. He provides me with all things necessary for my salvation and makes whatever evils He sends upon me in this valley of tears turn to my advantage, God is able to do this because He is Almighty, and He is willing to do this because He is a faithful Father. Therefore all things, good and evil, come not by chance, but by God's fatherly hand. And for this reason we may be certain that nothing shall separate us from God's love. All creatures are so in God's hand that without His will they cannot so much as move!
What a marvelous comfort for the believer!
Lord's Days 23 and 24 teach that we are righteous before God only by a true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though our consciences accuse us that we have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God and kept none of them and are inclined to all evil, nevertheless God, without any merit of us, graciously imputes to us the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. Further, we are acceptable to God, not on account of the worthiness of our faith, but only because we embrace the righteousness of Christ by means of faith. Still more, our best works are all imperfect and defiled with sin, and the only righteousness that can be approved by God must be absolutely perfect and conformable to the divine law. Therefore our good works are the fruits of God's gift of faith. And, hence, the reward we receive in glory is not of merit, but of grace!
Next, we look at the 3rd and 4th Heads of Doctrine of the Canons of the International Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619). We confess with Articles 1, 2, and 3 that man was originally created in the image of God and endowed with many excellent gifts. Man, however, revolted against God by the instigation of the devil and forfeited those excellent gifts. Man thus entailed upon himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, perverseness of judgment. He became wicked, rebellious, obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections! In a word, man became totally depraved. What is more, we confess that through the fall of our first parents into sin and death, the entire race inherited this terrible depravity and corruption. This means that all men are conceived in sin and are children of wrath by nature. All men are incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage to sin. Without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God.
In the clearest of terms, the Canons teach that all are not saved in Christ. Article 6 teaches that God saves only those who believe in Jesus. With Article 7 we confess that God graciously saves only those who believe, out of all nations, according to His sovereign good pleasure and unmerited love. Articles 8 and 9 teach that it is neither God's nor the gospel's fault that many who are called refuse to come to Him. The fault lies in themselves, as Jesus teaches in the parable of the Sower ( Matt. 13). And according to Articles 10 and 11, that some do come is not due to their free will, but God elected them in Christ and God works salvation in them. Once again, the Canons (just as the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) teach that salvation is all the work of God!
In a profoundly beautiful statement Article 16 teaches that, though all of our salvation is by God's grace, God does not treat us as senseless stocks and blocks. Rather, God makes our wills alive and corrects us, but also sweetly and powerfully bends our wills, so that restoration and spiritual obedience begin to reign in us. This is true freedom, viz., that we love God and the neighbor. Following this same line, Article 17 stresses that God uses means sweetly and powerfully to bend our wills. Those means are the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline.
Testimony of Scripture
At this point we face the question: do the confessions accurately reflect what Scripture teaches? The Bible teaches that all men by nature (apart from the regenerating, saving grace of God in Christ) and by virtue of the fall of Adam and Eve are totally depraved. The passages are legion, and we cite only a few. We learn from Genesis 6:5, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great. . .and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Ephesians 5:1- 5 teaches that by nature we are dead in trespasses and sin. Note that! We are not merely by nature weak or sick or even quite sinful, but we are dead in sin! Romans 8:7 is absolutely conclusive on the issue of what total depravity means. There we read, "Because the carnal mind (the Greek has, "the mind of the flesh," RDD) is enmity (hatred, RDD) against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (emphasis mine). Total depravity means that, apart from God's grace, man lacks the ability to be subject to God's law! A man may observe some of God's commandments outwardly, but if he does not do so out of faith in Christ and to the glory of God, it profits him nothing but leads to greater condemnation. Jeremiah 17:9 teaches, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" LikewiseEphesians 2:3 teaches that we all had our conversation (manner of living) among the wicked and were by nature children of wrath.
The Bible, therefore, also teaches that salvation is only, always, entirely by God's sovereign, particular grace. This means that salvation is not made possible by a certain "common grace" by which all men are enabled to accept God's well-meant offer of the gospel to them. The Scriptures nowhere present the gospel in the form of an offer, but always in the form of an imperative, a command. The apostle Paul, in the course of his sermon in Athens, told the audience that God "now commandeth all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). In II Corinthians 5:20-21, the same apostle, wrote, "Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (emphasis mine).
And in Ephesians 2:8-10 we read, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." Scripture knows of no well-meant offer of the gospel.
Salvation is all by the grace of God in Jesus. Listen to the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 31:18 b-19 we read, "...turn thou me, and I shall be turned, for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth." The prophet Ezekiel writes (36:26-27), "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments to do them."
The New Testament echoes the same truth. Paul writes in Romans 5:5 , "And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us." And in Ephesians 1:19 he writes, "And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his (God's) mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead...." To the church in Thessalonica and to the church catholic, the inspired apostle writes, "Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power, That the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ" (II Thess. 1:11-12). In II Peter 1:3, we read, "According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness...." The inspired apostle Paul concludes in Romans 9:16, "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy." The apostle goes on to say that God raised up Pharaoh for the purpose of showing his (God's) power and declaring his name throughout the earth (vv. 17-18). This provokes the objection recorded in verse 19, "Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?" Pharaoh did not resist God's will, but in spite of himself served God's purpose. How can God find fault then in Pharaoh? God's answer through the apostle is sharp, "Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?" (v. 20).
The Response of Faith
And what shall we say in the light of this precious truth?
What can we possibly say but with the publican in the temple, "God be merciful to me the sinner"? "This man," Jesus said, "went down to his house justified rather than the other." That other was the Pharisee, who boasted of his good works, thinking he could earn his own justification by those deeds.
Or we say with the holy apostle Paul, "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief" (I Tim. 1:15). Or with the father out of whose son Jesus cast an evil spirit (Mark 9:24), we cry out as did this father with tears, "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief." Or again with Paul (II Cor. 9:15) we exclaim, "Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift."
Now what about that question with which we began: does Romans 9 contradict Deuteronomy 30? Not at all! The Bible speaks with one voice, and it is to that one voice of God's inspired Word that we must turn for the answer. In Philippians 2:13-14 we read, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," i.e., "Now therefore choose life!" And, let it not escape our attention, the text does not say choose life or choose death! The text says, "Choose life." That is not an offer; it is God's command! We can obey it for only one reason, "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." As we learned from the Canons of Dordt, God does not treat us as senseless stocks and blocks. God works in us by sweetly bending our wills to conform with His will.
What, then, is the last word? Just this from Romans 11:36: "For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever, Amen." Do not ever say anything but that! That is our only comfort in life and in death. We and God's people out of every nation are forever secure in the wonderful, sovereign, and particular grace of God in Christ, worked by God the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives.
The Law of God and Man's Will
Rev. Carl J. Haak
As Reformed believers we gladly and humbly confess that our God is sovereign in His will of predestination! From eternity He has chosen in His decree of unconditional election those He will save. He has also willed eternally in His decree of reprobation those who will be condemned in their sins, and has done so in strictest justice and unrivaled sovereignty. Therefore, when a sinner is actually saved, it is the mighty, irresistible, and never-failing love and grace of God at work in his heart bringing him to his Savior Jesus Christ (see Deut. 32:39, 40; Matt. 11:25, 26; Rom. 9:11ff.).
Gladly and humbly the Reformed faith leads us to confess: "Salvation is of the Lord!" (Jonah 2:9).
As we take up the subject of God's law and man's will, we arrive at the test of the genuineness of our confession of the sovereignty of God's grace in salvation. We will learn whether our confession of God's sovereignty is merely academic and theoretical, or truly personal and experiential. Sovereign grace is not simply a concept that believers receive from Holy Scripture, but the actual experience worked in them by the Holy Spirit. And the experience of the Spirit's work of sovereign salvation will always be found in this, that the believer is brought into willing and heartfelt submission to God's will as revealed in His law.
Sovereign grace shows its power and its reality in the believer's life when it brings him willingly into submission and conformity to the law of God. The workings of God's elective and saving grace are surely known in those in whom the Spirit works. What will that experience be? Scripture is plain in its answer. It will not be a temporary shiver and shake at a revival camp, a momentary emotional feeling of well-being in a "connecting service," a passing urge for self improvement; but the experience of sovereign grace will be the subjection of a rebellious, hateful, self-loving sinner and the bending of his knee in reverent and loving submission before God's law, so that he now asks: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" (Acts 9:6). The evidence of the mighty grace of God is that one is given to say with the psalmist: "O how love I Thy law" (Ps. 119:97).
This is the teaching of our Reformed confessions. What, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, is the experience of one brought to the comfort of belonging to Jesus Christ? This: they receive a principle of new obedience so that "with sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God" (Lord's Day 44, Q&A 114). The Canons of Dordt, the touchstone of orthodoxy for the truth of sovereign, particular grace, teach that those saved by grace have received, by the efficacy of the Spirit, "new qualities into the will." Being now made alive spiritually, the will of the saved sinner is rendered "good, obedient, and pliable ... that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruit of good actions" (Head 3&4, Article 11).
The creeds are echoing Scripture. This was the experience of the Gadarene demoniac of Mark 5. Previously the demoniac had lived under the dominion of sin in all the horror of rebellion against the commandments of God. But when the sovereign Lord brought him to Himself, what was his experience? He sat at Jesus' feet in his right mind and made request: "Lord, I would be with thee" (Mark 5:18). David, in Psalm 119, repeatedly states that the result of God's sovereign and effectual work in him will be that he will have respect unto all the commandments of God (see Ps. 119:32, 36, 37, 133). The Scriptures make plain that saving grace brings a new, principled obedience (seated in the renewed will) to God's law (see Ps. 110:3).
Note well, obedience to the law is not the condition to receiving grace. How can "unmerited favor" be merited? Rather, the result and evidence of sovereign grace will be the willing and joyful submission from the heart to God's most holy law. Grace does not leave a person lawless. Grace sovereignly brings the elect sinner under the rule of the Master as expressed in His law.
The Question We Face
As we examine the relationship between God's sovereign grace, God's law, and man's will we are confronted with probing and personal questions. It is exactly in examining our stance toward the law of God in its fundamental requirement of the love of God that we learn whether or not the power of grace is present within us. Has the grace of God taught your heart and brought your spirit into willing obedience to the law of God, so that you now live out of the love of God? Do you desire to walk in His law, be it imperfectly, and to do His commandments? Is it your desire to be seen as one who lives out of the principle of the love of God and of the neighbor?
Expanding upon the question, we ask: Have you seen God personally in His law? Has He stood before you in His law as the holy God in such a way that He has shattered your own pride, so that you respond with Peter: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man"? Do you take the words of the apostle as your own experience: I am, before this holy and just God revealed in His law, a wretched man"? As the holiness of God shines from His law, do you cry with Isaiah: "I am undone"?
But there is more. Have you also seen by the same grace of God that the requirements of the law of God were perfectly fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus Christ, the Head of the elect, as He is set forth in the gospel? Do you believe that the demands of God's offended law have been satisfied for you in the obedience of another, the Lord Jesus Christ? And do you thrill in hearing the message of the everlasting gospel that "God without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect righteousness and holiness of Christ" (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 23, Q&A 23)?
Still more, the question is: Are you then resolved by grace to obey God's commands and to live no longer according to your foolish will, but His holy will? Is it your chief desire that God make you a holy person in thought, word, and deed?
The answer to these questions reveals the presence or the absence of saving, elective grace within a person's life. The fundamental experience of the recipient of saving grace is the knowledge of one's damnable sins and sinfulness as exposed by the law of God, a trust in the perfect righteousness of Christ revealed in the gospel, and now, by the same sovereign grace, the desire to live according to all the commandments of God.
By considering the law of God and our relationship to it we are delivered from a mere abstract confession of sovereign grace and are led to understand what the experience of salvation by grace is. It is nothing less than being made conformable to the law of God in a life of new obedience.
The Law of God as the Expression of God's Will
God's law is the expression of His will. To put it more completely, the commandments of God reveal what pleases God and thus expresses His will for what man is to be in his thoughts, deeds, words, and being. Because the law is the expression of God's will, the law is good. Psalm 19celebrates this aspect of God's law: "The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple" (Ps. 19:7). The law is good because it shows how God's creatures shall live in fellowship with God and enjoy His favor.
Already we see that the conflict that fallen sinners have with God's law is as inevitable as it is explosive. Man is estranged from God and thus an anarchist with respect to the law of God. There is deep resentment and hatred in the being of fallen man towards God's good law "because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7). By nature we imagine the law of God to be against our best interests. We believe the law to be cruelly restrictive, And we dread the pronouncements of the law upon the actions our fallen nature loves.
Paul frankly confesses this in Romans 7. Without faulting the law of God, the apostle nevertheless says that it provokes our fallen nature. Paul, as a renewed child of God, found that the law not only pointed out his sinful deeds, but also incited the native enmity in him against God into acts of sin. He confesses in behalf of all who have received abundance of grace that when the "thou shalt not" of the law came to him, the passions of sin were stirred within him so that he now wanted to do what was being forbidden exactly because God had forbidden it (see Rom. 7:5). It is like the boy living in a northern climate being warned by his parents during an especially severe blast of cold weather not to lick the metal flagpole. The boy had never, at least to that moment, imagined doing such a thing, but now he finds the prospect of doing it almost irresistible.
Paul goes on to ask whether there is some defect in the law of God that it so excites our nature into rebellion (Rom. 7:7). The answer is an emphatic NO! "Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good" (Rom. 7:12). The problem is not with the law, as human nature would insist. Always the cry of man is: "Remove the law, and the problem of evil is solved." But the problem is more basic. The law is the expression of God's will, and man's will by nature is fully set against the will of God, hates what God loves, and expresses its loathing of the holy God by raging against the expression of God's holiness seen in the law. The solution is not found in removing or tampering with the law, so that its uncompromising insistence on God's holiness is blunted — something faith finds abhorrent. But the answer is found in a marvelous change made by grace, in which the enmity of the sinner against God Himself is removed and, as a result, his will delights in God's will as revealed in His law.
God's law, then, proceeds from God's unquestionable right as God to legislate a man's conduct, the thoughts he is to entertain, and the purpose he is to serve. God's law declares that man is not autonomous, self-governing, or independent. Rather, in His law God stands before man and says: "Be ye holy; for I am holy" (I Pet. 1:16). Nor does the sovereign and holy God negotiate His law with man in light of the fact that the fallen sinner now finds himself so deeply entrenched against His law. God maintains His law as the only good and declares that, so long as He remains God, His law remains as the only standard by which men may live.
This means that disobedience to God's law is hatred for God. In each commandment God is telling us something about Himself. The law of God demands what it does because of who God is, and thus how man is to live in response to the truth of God's own being. The Ten Commandments are not an arbitrary code determined by caprice and formulated as a response to what man was doing. This is true of all human laws. They are fitted according to the needs of the moment and based upon the fickle judgments of men. All of God's commandments are based on a perfection of God's being. The heart of every transgression of the law of God is anarchy against God. It is a challenging of the Godhead Himself.
Even a brief look at the commandments will show how each is a distinct revelation of God's own being. In the first commandment God declares that He is the One, Independent, Self-sufficient, and all-glorious Being called God, and thus He is to be worshiped as God alone. In the second commandment we are confronted with the truth that God is infinitely glorious, beyond our comprehension, and therefore we can only worship Him in the way He teaches us or we will trample His majesty in our foolish imaginations. In the third commandment God proclaims that He is holy and that we can only speak of Him in awe and reverence. In the fourth commandment God says that He enjoys the rest of His completed and perfect works and calls us to join Him in that rest in a special day. And so it is with the second table of the law, the ones that call us to love our neighbor. They too rest upon the pillars of His Being. In commandments 5-10 God says to us: all authority is mine, I am the source of life, I am pure and faithful, I own all, I am true, and I try the thoughts and the intents of the heart.
The law of God simply instructs us as to what we must be in the light of who God is. In all of the commandments God is requiring that our entire existence (our mind, will, desires, inclinations) be directed out of one purpose, namely, to love the Lord our God with our entire being.
God Maintains His Law
It follows that the law of God is irrevocable. It remains and will ever be the standard by which men are judged. For God's law to be repealed, God Himself must first pass away, something that is both absurd and abhorrent to a believer. Exactly because the law is the expression of the righteousness of God it cannot and will not be revoked. Even in heaven the same will and law of God will be present, only then the believer will be perfectly conformed to it and will walk in glorious liberty. This also applies to the eternal punishment of hell. The fires of hell burn forever because God's law forever remains in force.
God's maintaining His law over fallen man is a frightening thing. From Romans 1:1 8 ff. we learn that even though man sets the heart of the law at naught by denying God and worshiping the creature, God nevertheless maintains His law by executing the judgment due to those who have violated His will. This judgment assumes the terrible form of giving men and women over to the vile affections they have chosen, so that "they receive in themselves that recompense which was meet" (v. 27). God's law warns of the inexpressible agonies that must be reaped in a person's life if God's holy will is despised. And God maintains the integrity of His law by giving men over to the very judgments they have chosen by setting His law at naught.
This is an aspect of God's law that is particularly loathsome to fallen man. The depraved world not only insists that they may revoke God's law, but they add that no evil shall come as a result of doing so. They boast that no fire from heaven consumes them. In fact, by living in rebellion against God's law they imagine that the Eden of self-fulfillment, filled with every good and pleasant thing, will be theirs. "Our problem," says the rebellious sinner, "is God's law, and our utopia will be found in shaking ourselves free from its constraints and thus being set free to determine our own destiny."
But God upholds His law over against man and in justice makes man suffer the consequences of his rebellion. This is seen not only in all manner of horrendous sufferings (broken marriages and homes, incurable diseases, etc.), but also in the darkening of their own minds so that man becomes worse than a beast (see Eph. 4:17-18).
God’s Law and the Cross
Understanding these truths of the law of God, we can understand the nature of the redemption Christ has made for the elect upon the cross. At the cross, God did not throw aside His law and its demands upon the sinner. The cross of Christ was the display of God's perfect justice in upholding His law and at the same time justifying elect sinners who stood guilty before His law.
Here is the essential difference between the biblical and Reformed teaching of the cross and that of the Arminian teaching of the cross. The difference does not lie only in the extent of the atonement (those for whom Jesus died), but even more importantly, in the nature of Christ's atonement (what Christ actually did upon the cross for those for whom He died). When we see the truth of God's holy law and the fact that its penalty must be inflicted due to the very nature of the God whose law it is, then we can understand that the nature of Christ's suffering on the cross was to bear vicariously the penalty owed to God's elect, who have broken His law and whose rebellion cannot go unpunished. Christ's death was substitutionary wrath-bearing. By substitutionary we mean that He died in the place of the elect, and by wrath-bearing we mean that by His death He endured the penalty for the elect's law-breaking and thus removed their guilt forever.
Those chosen of the Father and given to the Son must have the punishment that the law requires for their transgression removed if they are to be saved. This punishment they could never endure. In order to secure their redemption, Jesus Christ came into the world and took on Himself the human nature to be their legal representative or substitute. Upon the cross the penalty for the elect's law-breaking was inflicted upon Him. This is the teaching of Galatians 3:10-13. God pronounces His everlasting curse upon those who break His law: "Cursed is everyone who continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." It was exactly this curse that Christ came to endure in place of those given Him of the Father. "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree." On the cross Jesus bore the everlasting curse due to the elect for their transgressions of God's law. Through what He did they are made righteous before God and freed from all guilt and condemnation (Rom. 8:1). They are saved, not because of what they themselves have done or will do, but solely on the ground of Christ's redeeming work. Christ's redeeming work was definite in its design and intent. It was intended to render complete satisfaction for the elect and for no one else. Christ did not simply die to make it possible for God to pardon sinners. Nor does Christ leave it up to dead sinners to choose whether or not His redemption will be effective for them. To the contrary, all for whom Christ sacrificed Himself will be saved infallibly because He died for them.
The Arminian error holds that Christ's saving work was designed to make it possible that all men be saved on the condition that they believe. Further, it teaches that Christ's death in itself did not actually secure or guarantee the salvation of anyone, but only made salvation possible for whosoever will receive Christ as their Savior by an act of their own will. This corruption of the truth of the cross sees no need for the satisfaction of God's justice. It does not believe that the breaking of God's law is something that must be punished. It does not believe that the penalty for transgressing the law of God must be inflicted and can never be ignored. Pardon, according to the Arminian view, is that God is willing to overlook man's lawbreaking and its just deserts if only man will give to God a decision, arising from his own will, to receive Jesus as Savior. Denying the need for God to uphold His law, and making man's faith to be a work that merits God's amnesty, the Arminian concept guts the cross of its power and virtue.
The basic error of the Arminian lies in the failure to understand the very nature of God and His law. Those who have broken God's law cannot be granted amnesty. That is, pardon for sin is not that God simply forgets our infractions of His law. Christ is not on the cross as some sort of example of what God will do to the sinner if he does not repent. Forgiveness is not that God chooses not to punish the breaking of His law on the condition that the sinner will receive Christ into his heart. Rather, the cross declares God to be "just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). In the words of the Form for the Administration of the Lord's Supper: Rather than that our sins should go unpunished, He hath punished the same in the bitter and shameful death of the cross. The atonement of Christ secured the salvation of the elect exactly and surely because Christ bore for them the wrath they deserved for breaking God's law. The cross does not declare that God set His law aside, but it is the beautiful display that He upholds His law and in mercy shows the way whereby He might pardon the guilty (Matt. 1:21; Luke 19:10; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:3,4; I Tim. 1:15; Titus 2:14; I Pet. 3:18).
Man's Will as Seen in the Light of God's Law
The law of God exposes man's fallen will as being rebellious and lawless.
By nature our will is the will of a rebel. It expresses itself in the words of Pharaoh: "Who is the lord that I should obey Him?" Or, in the words of the servants whose lord had gone to a far country: "We will not have this man to rule over us." And again in the words of Romans 8:7: "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be."
The idea of subjection is willing compliance, a bending of the knee and saying, "Thy will be done." Our depraved nature is not subject to the law of God. We will not comply with it and reverently bow before it. The will of man is actively rebellious. It is not passive. It is deliberate and intentional in its enmity against God. Our fall into sin did not deprive us of reason and turn man into a raving lunatic. Remaining rational and moral, the will of man is now fully set in him to do evil (Eccl. 8:11). That is, the will of man, apart from grace, is calculating, cunning, crafty, and deceitful against God's law. Man knows God's law without even coming into contact with its written form, as we read in Romans 2:14, 15, and yet in his heart he resists that law. The apostle says that unbelievers do "by nature the things contained in the law" (Rom. 2:14). So to speak, man has a respect for the conduct that would be required by the law. Men show themselves to have a certain regard for external decency in society and, for a while, for marriage and the sanctity of human life. They understand the requirements of God's law and they know that obedience to God's law is of benefit. For a while they may even comply with the law in an outward sense.
But they will not keep that law for its purpose of honoring and loving God. They show a regard for the law, but this proceeds only out of self-serving motives. When it comes to the heart of the law, namely the love of God as being the sole motive for all things, this they emphatically reject. The light of the law of God shows that man's will has only contempt for God.
Fallen man is also exposed in God's law as lawless. His will is given over to the enjoyment and delight of that which is unseemly, of that which is contrary to God. Knowing the judgments of God, judgments that fall upon those who set themselves against God's law, they not only do them, says the apostle, but they have joy in them (Rom. 2:32). Man is lawless; he revels in all that God's will identifies as vile.
This aspect of man's will is exposed in II Thessalonians 2:1-8. There the apostle is speaking of the coming of the Antichrist and of the spirit that will prepare his way. That day, says the apostle, is not going to come unless there be a falling away first, an apostasy, a divorcing of the truth within the nominal church. This apostasy within the church serves the purpose of preparing the way for the blatant form of lawlessness that will characterize the days of the Antichrist. The Antichrist will be "the man of sin," literally, "the lawless one."
Paul goes on in verse 7 to say: "For the mystery of iniquity (again the word is lawlessness) doth already work, only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way." The Word of God is teaching that sin follows a certain downward course. God has placed certain external restraints on men to impede the premature development of sin in society. These restraints are the enforcement of God's law to a degree by society, something society does for her own benefit. Man knows that certain undesirable consequences await him if he commits all that is in his heart. But more and more these restraints shall be removed. What once made men afraid to perform perverse deeds of wickedness will no longer be considered an impediment. This leads to the day of the Antichrist, the lawless one, who will be able to give to men the freedom to live in contempt of the law of God.
The day of Antichrist is the day when man's depraved will stands naked under the sun in all of its awful delight in the evil God's law condemns. It is the day when lawlessness will be legalized. Every violation of the law will not only be allowed, but the consequences that God has fixed against those sins will apparently be overcome. The Antichrist will be able to provide for every man to follow the lawless pursuits of his own heart. It is exactly when man stands in his lawlessness before God in its most vile expressions that God shall come in judgment.
The Wonderful Work of Grace in Conforming our Will to God's Law
In the light of all that the law reveals about man's fallen will, it must be plain that the salvation of the sinner is a work of powerful grace. If there are a people who humble themselves before God's law, acknowledge their sin in the face of that law, trust in Christ who has obeyed the law for them and taken away their guilt, and now desire to live in obedience to that law, such a people can be accounted for only as the product of God's conquering grace. If it is true that the law reveals the state of man's heart as a rebel against God who is heaping up for himself more and more judgment, then if there is a people of God who would, according to the inward man, desire to walk in the law of God, this can only be due to the grace of God — a mighty grace of God that has overcome and conquered the vile and hardened sinner and brought him trembling to the feet of the Savior.
Salvation cannot be understood in terms of negotiation between God and man. Salvation is not accomplished by the surrender of man's will to God, but by God's conquering of the rebellious hearted, and implanting in man's will new spiritual qualities that make him good and obedient. It is not so, as commonly portrayed, that God does not want to have an empty heaven, is desperate somehow to get men to look His way, and is willing to compromise on whatever issue is of importance to them. But salvation is God remaining all that He is, holy and true, righteous and merciful. It is God conquering the heart, God subduing the will, and God bringing us into conformity to the law.
Oh, how mighty is the work of salvation by God's grace! God has taken the rebellious and made them loving sons and daughters! God has removed the dominion of contempt for Him in our hearts and replaced it with the principle of the life of Christ that adores and worships Him.
Salvation stands squarely on the foundation of divine justice satisfied. Christ has fulfilled the requirements of the law for us, both in its demands for the punishment of those who have defied the law, and in its demands for the offering of unblemished and unceasing love for God. And now we say, "I love the law of God, for I see that the law of God is right and true."
The contemplation of God's will as represented in His law gives us to know the full depth of God's grace. By renewing grace we look into the law as it expresses God's will and we have a deeper horror of the sin from which we must be delivered. We see that our sin is that we strive with God. We are opposed to our Maker and to His perfections. We would not have God be who He is. We want Him to be like ourselves. And we weep over the blasphemy that our sin brings before God.
But by that same grace, and looking again into the law, we receive a deeper and a clearer knowledge of the preciousness of our Savior Jesus Christ and the perfect obedience He gave to God in our place. The terrors of God's offended law cannot reach us, for He took them all upon Himself. And He offered willingly unto God a perfect love and obedience that God now, by grace, reckons as our own.
And now, by virtue of God's regenerating grace, we look once more into the law, and we respond with the apostle Paul:
"Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" (Acts 9:6). We say from the heart: "Give me to will Thy will. Give me to desire and to walk according to Thy law, so that I might always be wellpleasing to Thee." To everyone saved by grace, the law of God is not viewed as a straitjacket restricting true happiness, but as love's perfect guide of thankfulness. The law becomes delight, the commandments are not grievous but enlightening, and the precepts of God give joy in the soul. Grace makes the sinner love the law of God and delight to be in harmony with the will of God revealed in the law.
Here is the marvel of God's grace. It takes rebel sinners and turns them into willing and obedient sons and daughters who love His law. A life lived in new, principled obedience to God's law shows the power and reality of sovereign grace. It shows that the grace of God creates a people in whom the law is written upon their hearts and who therefore confess, "I delight to do thy will, O my God" (Ps. 40:8).
SCRIPTURE PASSAGES that prove:
Romans 8:29 — "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren."
Ephesians 1:5 — "Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,"
Romans 8:29 — "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren."
Romans 11:2 — "God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? How he maketh intercession to God against Israel...."
Acts 2:23 — "Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:"
I Peter 1:2 — "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied."
ELECTION & REPROBATION
Canons 1, 6 — "That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God's eternal decree, 'For known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world' (Acts 15:18). 'Who worketh all things after the counsel of his will' (Eph. 1:11). According to which decree He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which, though men of perverse, impure, and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation."
Romans 9:10-13 — "And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated."
Ephesians 1:3, 4 — "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:"
I Peter 1:2 — "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied."
Canons I, 15 — "What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture that not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal election of
God; whom God, out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but leaving them in His just judgment to follow their own ways, at last for the declaration of His justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares Him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof."
Matthew 11:25, 26 — At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight."
John 10:26 — "But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you."
John 12:37-40 — "But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: that the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them."
Romans 9:13-18 — "As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth."
Romans 11:7-10 — "What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded (according as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day. And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumbling block, and a recompence unto them: let their eyes be darkened that they may not see, and bow down their back always."
I Peter 2:8 — "And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient:
whereunto also they were appointed."
Acts 15:18 — Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world."
Isaiah 46:10 — "Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:"
Job 23:13, 14 — "But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? And what his soul desireth, even that he doeth. For he performeth the thing that is appointed for me: and many such things are with him."
Psalm 115:3 — "But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased."
Daniel 4:35 — "And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?"
Romans 9:15, 18 — "For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.... Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth."
Malachi 3:6 — "For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed."
Jeremiah 32:17 — "Ah, Lord GOD! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee:"
GOD'S SOVEREIGNTY OVER SIN
II Samuel 16:11 — "And David said to Abishai, and to all his servants, Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: how much more now may this Benjamite do it? let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD hath bidden him."
II Samuel 24:1 — "And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah."
Job 1:12 — "And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD."
Job 1:21 — "And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD."
Proverbs 21:1 — "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will."
Amos 3:6 — "Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?"
Isaiah 45:7 — "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things."
Acts 2:23 — "Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:"
Acts 4:27, 28 — "For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done."
Romans 9:19-22 — "Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:"